Deciphering the speeches Benedict delivers in U.S.
When he speaks in public, Pope Benedict is more seminar than soundbite. He often speaks as if only philosophers and theologians are listening, but he can deliver quite simple and clear homilies. Having covered him since his election in 2005, I’m very curious to see how he comes across in such a soundbite culture as the United States. We’ve just issued what might be called a short guide to deciphering the different ways he communicates.
The challenge is double for journalists covering his trips. First, they have to grasp the complex arguments he makes. They’re not incomprehensible, but they are often demanding. Second, they have to boil the message down to its essential points, which can be difficult when some speeches — for example, the controversial Regensburg lecture — are still the subject of debate among analysts who disagree about it.
Another problem is that he can speak in ways his audience may not be ready to hear. If listeners tune in to his speech to Catholic educators in Washington expecting him to upbraid the assembled university presidents and professors, they may be surprised to hear him stress the positive. If readers parse every statement for hints about his views on the presidential race, they may be disappointed. As Peter Steinfels of the New York Times aptly put it :
“Part of the problem in getting a fix on Benedict is simply the feebleness of accepted categories for understanding any serious religious leaders — and hence the impulse to deal with them as celebrities or politicians. Of all the words he speaks during his trip here, the ones that will probably go least examined are no doubt the ones he treasures most, the words of the Mass.”
For anyone interested in taking a closer look at the way Benedict speaks and what to expect, start with this recent Pew Forum discussion between John Allen and George Weigel. First Things editor Rev. Richard John Neuhaus posted “Listening to Benedict” today. If you’re more ambitious, try Socrates or Muhammad?, an analysis of the philosophy and theology behind the Regensburg lecture.